Saturday, December 27, 2008

Herman Witsius on the Atonement

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) produced a classic work which is entitled "The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man." In that work, which covers a broad range of subjects, there is a chapter devoted to the Reformed doctrine of Limited Atonement. This chapter is Chapter 9 of Book 2 in Volume 1. It is pages 255-71 of the den Dulke Christian Foundation's reprinting of 1990 (distributed by P&R Publishing), an edition that has a nice introduction by Tom Ascol.

In chapter 9 of Book 2, Witsius provides primarily a positive case for particular redemption, addressing the Remonstrant error of Universal atonement in very general ways, while setting forth the positive arguments with great clarity.

Witsius does not waffle on the issue of Christ's atonement. At section VI, he states " ... Christ, according to the will of God the Father, and his own purpose, did neither engage nor satisfy, and consequently in no manner die, but only for all those whom the Father gave him, and who are actually saved. This is that truth which is controverted, and which we are now to confirm, in a concise but solid manner, from the sacred writings." He goes on to provide just such a confirmation, and I would commend his explanation to those readers interested in a positive Reformed presentation on the issue.

Witsius does use a few words that are not widely used today in his presentation. For example, he speaks of the impetration of Christ, which is the act of obtaining by prayer or petition. One of the helpful points of explanation that Witsius provides is a demonstration that salvation is impetrated by Christ, and not only impetrated but also applied.

Witsius quotes Remigius of Lyons (9th century) as stating, "The blood of Christ is a great price; such a price can, in no respect, be in vain and ineffectual but rather is filled with the super-abundant advantage arising from those blessings for which it is paid." Unfortunately, Witsius himself provides only a quotation to a secondary source (Forbes. Instruct. Hist. lib. 8. c. 16), and I have not been able to track this quotation back to an original source from Remigius at this time.

As noted above, Witsius provides mostly a positive case. At section XXXVI, Witsius politely declines to reproduce all the excellent answers to Remonstrant objections, and instead points the reader to the worthy Dutch theologian, Gomarus. In particular, he points to a dissertation inserted into Gomarus' commentary on Galations. Sadly for us, Gomarus' works are (for the most part) not readily available in any language, and mostly have not been translated into English (as far as I know).

Nevertheless, the reference to and reliance on Gomarus can help to solidify a taxonomy of Witsius as siding with the strict Calvinists against the Remonstrant errors, even on the doctrine of the atonement, for those trying to provide taxonomies of the Calvinists. I realize that the Amyraldian (or quasi-Amyraldian) folks with whom I have been dealing on this doctrine have read at least portions of what Witsius wrote, but I would like to encourage them to read it again, focusing on Witsius' excellent explanations for why he believes as he does.


UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, I believe I may have located the Latin original to which Witsius was referring: "Unde penset unusquisque fidelis, cum sanguis ille tanquam Agni incontaminati et immaculati Christi ab Apostolo pretium magnum dicatur esse, utrum possit tale pretium in aliqua parte esse inane et vacuum, an potius illarum mercium pro quibus datum est lucro et cumulo refertum." Remigius of Lyons, De Tribus Epistolis Liber, Chapter XVI, PL 121:1015B-C

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